Rationality Quotes November 2011

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The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

John W. Gardner

I agree with the general thrust, but ... even though modern western society does scorn plumbers (compared to philosophers), our pipes do hold water, and I don't have any complaints about the overall quality of plumbing.

Our society may not have much high words of praise for excellence in plumbing (you're more likely to talk about your hobby as a wildlife photographer than your job fixing toilets on your OK Cupid profile, even if you're average at the first and excellent at the second), but good plumbers get more money than bad plumbers, which is enough to get quality plumbing. By contrast, good philosophers get more praise from their peers than bad philosophers do, which is both harder to evaluate and less motivating.

So I don't think it's a matter of humble activity / exalted activity; designing bridges and transplanting hearts are exalted activities too, and we don't tolerate much shoddiness there.

I just noticed CVS has started stocking homeopathic pills on the same shelves with--and labeled similarly to--their actual medicine. Telling someone who trusts you that you're giving them medicine, when you know you’re not, because you want their money, isn’t just lying--it’s like an example you’d make up if you had to illustrate for a child why lying is wrong.

-- Randall, XKCD #971

I noticed this too, but they're fake homeopathic pills. They're not really homeopathic - they have active ingredients in the same quantity as the original brand-name products they are knock-offs of, but with the word "homeopathic" added as a marketing ploy. They're lying about lying.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.


Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”

-Persi Diaconis

By the way, Diaconis stayed at Stanford. He's giving a public lecture on Nov. 30.

That's a pretty cool paper; eg.

There is not very much variability in coin flips, and practiced magicians (including myself ) can control them pretty precisely. My colleagues at the Harvard Physics Department built me a perfect coin flipper that comes up heads every time. Most human flippers do not have this kind of control and are in the range of 51⁄2 mph and 35 to 40 rps. Where is this on Figure 1? In the units of Figure 1, the velocity is about 1⁄5—very close to the zero. However, the spin coordinate is about 40—way off the graph. Thus, the picture says nothing about real flips. However, the math behind the picture determines how close the regions are in the appropriate zone. Using this and the observed spread of the measured data allows us to conclude that coin tossing is fair to two decimals but not to three. That is, typical flips show biases such as .495 or .503.


One of the most useful things to come out of my study is a collection of the rules of thumb my friends use in their decision making. For example, one of my Ph.D. advisers, Fred Mosteller, told me, “Other things being equal, finish the job that is nearest done.” A famous physicist offered this advice: “Don’t waste time on obscure fine points that rarely occur.” I’ve been told that Albert Einstein displayed the following aphorism in his office: “Things that are difficult to do are being done from the wrong centers and are not worth doing.” Decision theorist I. J. Good writes, “The older we become, the more important it is to use what we know rather than learn more.” Galen offered this: “If a lot of smart people have thought about a problem [e.g., God’s existence, life on other planets] and disagree, then it can’t be decided.”

On precision in aesthetics, metaethics:

RS: Butt-Head, I have a question for you. I noticed that you often say, "I like stuff that's cool." But isn't that circular logic? I mean, what is the definition of "cool," other than an adjective denoting something the speaker likes?

BH: Huh-huh. Uh, did you, like, go to college?

RS: You don't have to go to college to know the definition of "redundant." What I'm saying is that essentially what you're saying is "I like stuff that I like."

B: Yeah. Huh-huh. Me, too.

BH: Also, I don't like stuff that sucks, either.

RS: But nobody likes stuff that sucks!

BH: Then why does so much stuff suck?

B: Yeah. College boy! Huh-huh, huh-huh.

-Rolling Stone, Interview with Beavis and Butt-Head

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.

Gloria Steinem

This doesn't need to be true. Accepting the truth without getting pissed off is a learnable skill.

I think, in terms of truths that "set one free," there is a high probability of being in bondage to some delusion or malformed anxiety, and that the wrenching effect of having to overturn a lot of one's prior beliefs is quite likely to have some anger component, even if only at whatever forces kept one in ignorance previously. In many cases it means coming to terms with the degree to which one had been used and manipulated up until the new perspective arrived. At least this mirrors my experience leaving the church, as well as in some other emotionally loaded topics.

It is better to destroy one's own errors than those of others.


Certainly more convenient. I mean, you're right there. You don't even have to verbalize your arguments!

Technically true, but that's a horrible analogy. Bullys are still a problem if you don't notice them. An ugly picture is completely not a problem if no one sees it, so in a way it is worse.

Isn't this opposed to Lovecraft's claim that nothing he could describe would be as scary as the unknown / the reader's fears?

As well, there are a lot of shock pictures out there that were worse than what I could imagine before having seen them, and looking at them is worse than remembering them. If "worse" refers to subjective experience, then it seems obvious that closing your eyes can help.

As well, there are a lot of shock pictures out there that were worse than what I could imagine before having seen them, and looking at them is worse than remembering them.

Care to name an example? I've been so desensitized, I think the worst any picture could do for me is to be somewhat depressing. Lovecraft, however, is still horrifying.

You actually find Lovecraft horrifying? I read a bit (color out of space, a short about ancient lizard people being wiped out by a vengeful god, and a bunch of descriptions) and found it peculiar and sad, but not horrifying. Too much Poe as a baby, I guess.

Lovecraft directly taps into my own madness and fears. He is psychologically quite similar to me and manages to actually express how bad xenophobia and the utter indifference of the cosmos feel. Worst of all, his more madness-focused stories like The Dreams in the Witch-House directly remind me of my own periods of insanity and paranoia. So it's really horrifying through its realism, at least for a certain kind of person.

(And he is the only one I know who does that, though I'm (intentionally) not very familiar with some related authors like Ligotti.)

Plus, violations of the natural order are much worse than anything in traditional horror. A color that doesn't fit in the light spectrum is more terrifying and disgusting to me than serial killers, torture or 2girls1cup. Not sure I can explain that one.

This reminds me of an experiment I've wanted to do for some time, but don't have the necessary equipment for. I'd love to see it tested by someone who do.

Take multiple light sources each shining in only one frequency, that can be dimmed, in specific triplets. Quickly eyeballing it I'd suggest [420nm, 550nm, 600nm] and [460nm, 500nm, 570nm]. using a normal white light source as a reference, first adjust the relative intensity of each triplet so the combined light appears white, then scale the combined light (probably by simply altering the distance) to the same intensity. Both lights should now appear identical. if they don't make further minor adjustments. Look at them side by side, until you can see the colour out of space. :)


Because seeing tetracromaticaly would be awesome, even if it's only possible in contrived settings.

Do you expect that setup to feel much different than say, putting florescent and incandescent bulbs next to each other?

I think you need some special equipment to actually see tetrachromatically: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrachromacy#Possibility_of_human_tetrachromats

My neurology intuition has proven useful in the past, and I trust it a lot more than that wikipedia article.

Same here, though I do enjoy (some of) Lovecraft's writing. I just don't find it as frightening as he apparently did. When I was little, Poe's Fall of the House of Usher and Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains literally gave me nightmares for weeks, so I must have developed some powerful mental antibodies.

Or just appropriately encode the text/label the link/add appropriate warnings?

I do not have a very visual imagination, and so find it easy to forget the details of disturbing pictures, even if I saw them moments ago (forget meaning not be able to recreate in my mind, rather than not be able to recognize). Of the time when I was frequenting 4chan, I think my least favorite picture was ybghf gvg.

As always when we hear the word "worse", we need to ask ourselves, "worse on what metric?"

This reminds me of Lojban, in which the constructs meaning "good" and "bad" encourage you to specify a metric. It is still possible to say that something is "worse" without providing any detail, but I suspect most Lojban speakers would remember to provide detail if there was a chance of confusion.

People can learn to look you in the eyes even when they're lying to you. But it's kind of like a fake smile; there are involuntary muscles up there. If you know what you're looking for, you can still tell. But what does it mean if they're looking you in the eyes and they mean it? It means that, at least in that moment, they're doing what they really believe is right. That's the definition of integrity.

That part is easy. That's not the surprising thing.

The surprising thing, to me, was that someone can have integrity and still be completely evil. It's kind of obvious in retrospect; the super-villain in an action movie can always look the hero in the eye, and he always does, just to prove it. He has integrity. Evil with integrity is more respectable, somehow, than plain evil. All it takes to have integrity is to do what you think is right, no matter how stupid that may be.

Beware of people with integrity.

-Avery Pennarun

You can't make a movie and say 'It was all a big accident' - no, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together. Because in a story, a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design - no, a story is about evil people plotting together.

One of the strengths of Apollo 13 is that it has only good guys in it, battling together against an unforeseen, mysterious and near-lethal twist of fate.

Apparently he hasn't seen many Cohen brothers movies...